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Diamonds: A Mantra for Hard Times

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Diamonds: A Mantra for Hard Times

Doesn’t life teach us the most when it brings us to our knees?” A question that has lingered since it was first posed by one of my yoga teachers years ago, feeling just as fitting now as it did back then. Sometimes things just feel really hard. A mantra that often comes to mind in these, am I cut out for this moments is, “Diamonds.”

Diamonds come from the Greek word adámas which means unbreakable. It is the hardest known mineral, hence its name, and each and every diamond is unique. Diamonds are formed under tremendous heat and pressure. These conditions exist miles beneath the Earth’s surface where temperatures exceed triple digits.

Life gets really hot and uncomfortable and overwhelming at times yet this heat and pressure are refining something really beautiful on the inside. My knees buckled recently. I think it might have been on the fourth, or fifth (?) night in a row of eating popcorn for dinner. Yes I am a dietitian, but I’m also a new mom, a full-time worker, and an overtime dreamer that often struggles to find the bandwidth to eat leafy greens and lean protein at every meal and stay connected with people who remind me I’m not alone. In a lonely moment, a former client of mine came to mind. She was a single mom, working overtime at a minimum wage job to support her three children, and wasn’t really interested in talking about getting 5-9 servings of fruits and veggies the first time we met; she needed to check and see if the cab driver she arranged to pick up her son and take him to karate class had actually shown up on time.

I was one of three too. I’ve caught myself in many moments lately thinking, “how did they do it?” wondering how my parents juggled full-time careers, a family business, a full house, their own dreams, and some hard times of their own. In the juggling, the hard often feels like a heavy weight that lands in your palm and folds you in half. I remember watching a juggler once. He dropped his balls and then you know what? He picked them all up and started again.

In the book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle shares the story of a beggar who had been sitting on an old box on the side of the road for over thirty years. One day a stranger walked by. “Spare some change?” mumbled the beggar. “I have nothing to give you,” said the stranger before asking, “What’s that you are sitting on?” “Nothing,” replied the beggar. “Just an old box. I have been sitting on it for as long as I can remember.” “Have a look inside,” insisted the stranger. The beggar managed to pry open the lid elated to find the box was filled with treasure. Until we realize our true wealth within–our diamond in the rough–we’re all beggars. Hard times confine. Stuck in our heads we grow separate from the wealth within yet like tarnished silver, we just need some good polishing.

Hard times also refine.  Though our thoughts create plenty for us to mine through and purify, the treasure–however buried–is still in there.

“Perhaps the sea’s definition of the shell is the pearl. Perhaps time’s definition of coal is the diamond.” (Khalil Gibran)

Over time, coal transforms from its natural impure state to its purest form, graphite. As time goes on graphite can convert into diamonds. One of the most difficult yet valuable assets we have in life is this process of purification. The juxtaposition of many back-breaking, knee-buckling things awaits for us to be malleable enough to shift our perspective and see the good in the hard and embrace the process of purification these moments inspire.

The most incredible gems can’t be bought as they are buried beneath the skin of our own beings. When life brings you to your knees remember, Diamonds.

 

The featured image was created by the Spanish street art collective Boa Mistura when they were in Cape Town to film their documentary Diamond Inside. Check out more images at www.visualtherapyonline.com. 

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Becoming Real

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Becoming Real

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.” When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

[Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit]

 

Real talk, straight out of a childhood favorite that I was reminded of while reading Brené Brown’s, Daring Greatly. Somehow I remember relating to the rabbit more than the Skin Horse even back then. It seems the challenge of being real–genuine, not artificial, authentic, “loved off”–has existed since the beginning. I suppose then the always truthful Skin Horse is right in his acknowledgement of realness being a, “becoming”.

In her book Brown stated this:

“When I look back on what I’ve learned about shame, gender, and worthiness, the greatest lesson is this: if we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light. To set down those lists of what were supposed to be is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.”

 

There is that “v” word again. Vulnerability. Most of the time I feel like a tree in the winter afraid to shed its leaves, a mask collector in this crazy costume party known as life, a hoarder of all things comforting: decorative pillows, artisanal dark chocolate, long sivasanas, existential Rumi poems, old photographs, oversized clothing, essential oils. Achievements. Make-up. Time. Bollywood movies. The Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]. I’ve been staying carefully kept for quite some time.

During graduate school I taught an undergrad Science of Nutrition course. I’ll never forget the time I showed up at a local ice cream joint and was greeted by one of my students with a bonafide, “Busted!

How many times in your life have you been asked, “What do you want to be when you grown up?” We’ve been raised to define who we want to be, while existing in a culture of clones that expects us to be a very specific way. Be a dietitian, but don’t eat the ice cream. Do what you love but not if it isn’t making dollars and cents. Get married but not to a person of the same sex. Share your ideas and creativity but not if it is too out of the box. Practice your own faith, but what would Jesus do? There is this saying, “The opposite of courage is not cowardice; it’s conformity.” When we aren’t willing to be brave and broken for it, we conform and lose touch with what is truly real.

Often it feels like a game of hide and seek. We are enticed by vulnerability and then burrow away when it becomes too painful and uncomfortable. Realness doesn’t happen all at once and it does take time. Be courageous. I’ll look for your light as I explore my own wilderness and you look for mine. I’m certain there is enough buried treasure waiting to be [re]discovered for both of us and enough love in the world to find it, bit by bit.

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When Earthquakes Happen

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When Earthquakes Happen

When earthquakes happen, what do you do?

It was just shy of the ambrosial hours on Sunday in Oakland, California when the rumbling began. In a dreamy state of half-consciousness my thoughts became all sorts of interesting manifestations of worry; animals on the roof? A late season tornado whipping through The Bay, unannounced?  A freight train on the loose? Apocalypse after all?

Nope, an earthquake.

It wasn’t that dramatic really, 11 seconds in total of feeling like we were housed in a tent during 35 mph winds, yet 11 seconds long enough to shake out my rug and leave me reflecting on the dust that had been unsettled.

What if something had happened to my partner, does he know how—and how much—he has inspired me?

What if the house came tumbling down, does the 27-inch iMac even matter?

What if something happened to my barely 5 month old baby girl, have I fully embraced what an awesome and humbling and deeply fulfilling level of exhaustion she’s helped me achieve?

What if something happened to you before I had the chance to thank you for being?

What if something happened to me, have I said all the things I needed to say, have I done the things I wanted to do, have I lived the life I have been charged to live?

[Silence.]

A truthful pause broken. Broken by the wholeness of being with a gentle but firm, “N-O”.

Life has a way of shaking things up from time to time, of awakening us in ways we didn’t even realize we were sleeping. Earthquakes are natural—nature made—wake up calls. We need such riveting moments to bring us back to life, to fix our attention on being here now, to remind us that this isn’t a rehearsal, this is the real deal playing field on which no matter how prepared we might be for the game we will never entirely understand what nor whom we are up against, to serve as an impetus for us to recommit to our own unique dharma: life’s purpose, and its continued discovery.

Frederick Douglass said, “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”

Maybe your wake up call is an actual 6.0 on the Richter scale. Or maybe it is hearing about the shooting of another unarmed man of color on the 6 o’clock news, or witnessing a different crime on the streets, or losing a job or someone you love. Earthquakes come in morphing forms of sickness, injury, accidents, disorder, disasters—all sorts of unexpected fill-in-the-blanks that force us to reevaluate our existence and our presence in thereof.

What if we stopped keeping our later lists and pursued the fullest expression of life right now?

I’m telling my partner today that I live with less because he’s taught me that it can actually be more. I’m loosening my grip over materials that pale in the presence of meaningful experiences. I will hold my baby in the middle of the night tonight and say thank you for this unspeakable joy in my arms as she wails while her burps get stuck in the coils of her growing intestines. Thank you too, for sharing even a few moments of this lifetime with me.

As earthquakes inevitably come in your own life may you be vulnerable enough to let them rattle your cage in a way that brings pause, and ultimately leaves you journeying towards an existence that feels shared, expressive, authentic, and complete.

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What About Now?

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What About Now?

When was the last time you celebrated the sun’s birthday, the birth day of life, the leaping greenly spirits of trees, the blue true dream of sky, and gave thanks for most this amazing day? We spend so much of our time in the past which is dead and the future which has yet to be born. What about now? These types of connections are for the living, and the present is the only time we are fully alive.

Before you send the eyes rolling and write this one off as some more idealistic whimsical new age cow dung being regifted, hear me out.

I get it.

I’m not exactly high on life all the time either. I too am working overtime and often feel the elusive balance of existence. It hardly feels like there is time to take a breath let alone actually feel it! And that is the point. So often we place these types of mindful moments–and feeling in general–on the later list and overlook the possibility of mindfulness as a way to be. When we start to see mindfulness as the plate itself rather than another item on it, we start to understand its value.

To be mindful means to be fully present in the moment, without judgement. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines scarcity as the greatest cultural influence of our time. Scarcity, the “never enough” problem, is the judgmental default belief system we all perpetuate inside and out. As Brown states, “We get scarcity because we live it.” There is never enough time, or money, or confidence, or power, or certainty, or support, or…

We wake up each morning already feeling inadequate, and our own belief in inadequacy enables that in each other. The weight of each moment becomes too heavy to bare.

So how do we lighten the load?

A good start is by considering the opposite of scarcity which is “enough”. By continuing the practice of acceptance in each moment, just as it is–just as we are–we create an opportunity to expand the experience of the now, unadulterated. Who knows, maybe we will wake up to the birth of wings upon us and the gay great happening illimitably earth. Or maybe it will take a while for our days to feel that poetic. Either way, a step towards mindfulness, a practice that has been shown to help relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and even reduce gastrointestinal difficulties is indeed a positive one.

Mindlessness is the flimsy foam picnic plate as mindfulness is the fine china. Like anything worth keeping around, it requires some elbow grease to create. Before porcelain can be made impermeable and non-porous it must endure glazing and fire. To be here now takes effort and the enduring commitment to be nonjudgemental, no matter what life serves us. This level of vulnerability is uncomfortable yet something found admirable in anyone wiling to expose themselves so uninhibitedly.

What does being vulnerable mean to you? What’s on your plate, and how could mindfulness help you handle it with more care? How can you live more openly?

I need your openness as much as you need mine, and the entire world needs our full exposure of everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes.

Start by being vulnerable to yourself. Breathe and feel, observantly. Strip yourself down and dance with the unimaginable You. Let’s meet in the field beyond right and wrong doing that Rumi speaks of and share our own poetry.

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Sankalpa: Living Intentionally

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Sankalpa: Living Intentionally

According to eastern philosophy, Sankalpa is the determination of our being subtler than thought, and more powerful than mind. “San” refers to a connection with the highest truth, “kalpa” means vow. Sankalpa is a commitment to support our highest truth. As the word personified alludes to, it is not just an intellectualization, but an actual embodiment of deep intention.

In reality, Sankalpa is difficult to maintain–it certainly has been for me. How many times have I intended on not stealing and stolen other’s time? How repeatedly have I committed to self-love and chosen pain? How often have I vowed to not judge and perpetuated thoughts of judgement? As sensual beings in a stress-provoking society it’s no surprise we get distracted and fall off the path of purposeful living.

Life from the outside in is an expert at rocking the boat, generating fluctuations in the mind and a wide range of emotions they elicit. When the mind remains rogue with no accountability our thoughts, words, and actions ride the waves and our deepest intentions are lost in the ocean of commotion. For this reason, we have to take time to connect from the inside out. As Patanjali reminds us in the Yoga Sutras, “yoga chitta vritti nirodha”, cessation of the fluctuations of the mind is yoga.

The waves don’t really stop. What changes is our ability to detach from them. When we detach the water becomes more calm and through this stillness we are able to reconnect with the core of our being. For many of us, the waves we endure are reflections of a deeper need or want that is not being fulfilled, a higher truth that has been buried or has yet to be discovered, a subconscious habit pattern that is repeating until we develop enough awareness and determination to move beyond it.

By studying the mind we can continue revealing what lies underneath. Through our own personal root cause analysis we can engineer a better understanding of our thoughts, words, and actions. With that understanding we can re-embody our deepest intentions, Sankalpa, to ultimately live a life connected with our highest truth.

Intention is hard work. It’s not just an idea or positive thought, it’s effort. Strengthening our resolve allows us to channel our energy constructively. As our determination takes root, old patterns–those that we were born with, samskaras, and those that we’ve created here–will weaken.

Start where you are.

Start by making the strong determination to embody what needs and wants you know to be true today.

Work your ways deeper in until you rediscover that momentous well of your being, your highest truth, Sankalpa.

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Home and Humbled: Insights from the First Month of Motherhood

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Home and Humbled: Insights from the First Month of Motherhood

As the one month mark of motherhood quickly approaches, one word comes to mind in particular: humbled.

My loving partner tells me I’m beautiful which is not the first word that comes to mind as I look in the mirror at my postpartum body dressed in spit-up soaked sweats that I’ve been wearing since Sunday, blemished face adjusting to hormones and parenthood, hair that looks like it hasn’t seen seen a brush or a pair of scissors in months, the list feels endless–as any new mother surely can empathize. 

The collision of disruptive sleep [at best], sore breasts and body, energy deprivation, a haphazard diet, and sedentary lifestyle sans asana has proven to be a sobering one. I find myself questioning, “Is this what they mean by, ‘letting yourself go‘?!” Then reality answers; with a child solely dependent on your love and care for survival, you inevitably haveto let some things go. 

C.S. Lewis said, Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” 

Truth. Entry into motherhood has been a sincere invitation into a selflessness that I’ve never known. Sure, I’ve done for others and sacrificed my own wants and needs for the greater good but let’s be honest–nothing like this. There is though something strangely validating and inspiring in knowing this being that you co-created is dependent on your ability to put yourself aside. I’ve begun to recognize this as both the underlying challenge, and the ultimate gift of being a parent. I’m thankful for the opportunity to think of myself less, to put someone else’s existence before mine, and the challenge that comes with that in not thinking less of myself through the process. 

There is a quote in the Bhagavad Gita that reads, “Yoga is skill in karma.”

Karma, a way of acting, thinking, and doing by which one aligns with self-realization by acting in accordance with one’s duty (dharma) without consideration of personal self-centered desires, likes, and dislikes. The karma of being a mother is a reminder that beneath the clothes, and the skin, and the hair, and all the exterior forces that draw us outward, there is indeed a beautiful self unfolding on the interior through the selfless service of caring for your child. 

And so, as I return to exploring the stretch and strengthening that comes with nursing, laundering, diapering and the like I bow, humbly, to my 25 day-old teacher. What a different yet deepening yoga practice it’s been so far. 

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Rainbow Sprinkles and the Art of Living Irrationally

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Rainbow Sprinkles and the Art of Living Irrationally

On this particular Pi Day, a celebratory occasion honoring the mathematical constant that never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern, we honor irrationality.

What does it mean to be irrational, and why do we glorify it?

Perhaps because we can relate to it. As Dan Ariely, author of “The Upside of Irrationality” said, “When it comes to our motivations, we are less like hyper-rational Mr. Spock and more like the fallible, myopic, vindictive, emotional, biased Homer Simpson.”

Which leads me to the rainbow sprinkles. As a Registered Dietitian and a mindful yogi–particularly around the choices I make about nourishing my body–I found myself needing rainbow sprinkles this week. Before a 7:30 PM appointment my partner and I decided to venture out to the local grocer located in the opposite direction of our appointment at 6:45 PM, in hopes to get there before they closed at 7 PM. After successfully acquiring the sprinkles and completing the appointment, we then ventured to a local creamery where we grabbed a couple of scoops to go, and headed home (because the gluten-free ice cream cones were not available at the creamery, only in our pantry.) What comes after that was just a half-melted, successfully sprinkled, non-nutrient dense but absolutely delicious example of complete irrationality.

It is in our human nature to behave irrationally: thinking, talking, and acting without being reasonable. There is no doubt that the amount of non-optimal decisions we make far outweigh those that are optimal. Of course I am aware that the sugar, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, corn starch, corn syrup, red 40, yellow 5, blue 1, and soy lecithin are not ideal for my health. Of course I am aware that going the wrong way in rush hour traffic 30 minutes before an appointment to get sprinkles probably isn’t the most logical decision. Of course I am aware of the juxtaposition of putting said ingredients in a “gluten-free” 12 calorie cone. Still, the sprinkles won.

Whatever kind of “sprinkles” you are enabling in your day-to-day, it’s important to note that we all behave unreasonably at times, and acknowledge what’s been proven psychologically impactful and essential to the learning process: a willingness to be wrong. As it turns out understanding cognitive biases and irrational tendencies along with a willingness to misstep are incredibly crucial components of learning.

Perhaps our insensibilities are not so insensible after all.

On this day of veneration for 3.14159265359…remember that you too are immeasurable, non-duplicative, and in fact, an irrational expansion. Celebrate every step. Let your life and decisions be your teacher. Embrace every new direction–even the most ridiculous ones–that are unquestionably capable of facilitating growth beyond your boundaries.

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Without Judgement, Start Again

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Without Judgement, Start Again

A memorable line from one of my most influential yoga teachers. In fact one of the most influential practices I’ve gained from the mat, that resounds like Big Ben at the top of the hour every time I feel my insensitivity start ticking. A melodious reminder of how much time and energy criticism can squander, and a wake-up call to start again: find your breath, observe rather than condemn, and with awareness move on.

As Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental.”

Curiosity is defined as a strong desire to know or to learn something. It has the cosmic powers to convert calloused insensitivity into mindful vigilance. It’s curiosity that inspires us to cultivate a deeper understanding of our own behavior and habits while judgement often becomes a barrier enabling our habitual self-defeating behaviors.

Whether it be losing focus in meditation, striking a match with my partner, neglecting the exercise routine [again...], I’ve learned to grow curious. Through this commitment meditation has become a more sustainable practice, relationships have become humbling teachers, and I’ve discovered that there are a slew of other physical activities more engaging for me than running in place on an endless belt.

How would your day-to-day differ if you too committed to being curious?

The next time you find your self hung up on shortcomings and throttled by self-defeat, without judgement, start again: find your breath, observe, and begin to reshape your debilitating cycles into spirals of continued growth and expansion. Start small, start today, and if for some reason you don’t…

It works every time.

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Me, Myself, and I-and i

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Me, Myself, and I-and i

That’s right, I am a two-for-one-deal. A yogi twofer. A soldier awarded the Medal of Honor gone AWOL while waging the battle between Self and self. A wise old owl, and a tireless woodpecker. A Saint of the 21st century and a Bonnie, desperately searching for her Clyde. I am often blue, but sometimes red, with unpredictable streaks of jet black. I am the seasoned teacher and new kid in school alike, and the best lesson I have every taught myself is that I-and i–still have a heck of a lot to learn.

Friedrich Nietzsche was a twofer too. As the great philosopher said, “Whenever I climb I am followed by a dog called ‘Ego’.” I know that ascend; it’s that summit of self where you feel you’ve finally “made it” despite the canines chomping at your ankles, and then you take a step back to survey the landscape realizing you’re not quite sure this is it. 

And is it ever?

When it comes to the climb towards betterment, liberation, moksha, nirvana, disillusionment–whatever you want to call it–it often feels like the journey is never-ending. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all traveling with the proverbial monkey on our back, as the notorious yoga Sage Patanjali suggests, blemished by the dot of asmita: egoism.

The ego is defined as the driving force behind maintaining and enhancing favorable views of oneself, the ultimate, “fake it ’til you make it”. We’ve all done our fair share of wrestling in this arena. The fatigue that comes with this facade can actually help us soften to the idea of no longer suppressing our fears and insecurities. Quite oppositely, allowing them to fully manifest and serve as a trusted guide up the mountain. There was a saying that struck me while contemplating this very subject with a yogi friend of mine in India, “There is no need to pick at the unripe fruit, first let the fruit ripen. Ripened fruit falls from the tree itself.”

Truth.

Connecting with this idea from a real and vulnerable place allows liberation to evolve from an end, to the means to an end, when we are willing to embrace experiencing and expressing where we are in the ripening process of being completely, shamelessly, unapologetically, freely.

There is said to be an Asian tradition that when something is broken, its cracks are mended with gold because that which has cracked and broken appreciates in value. And so it goes for our cracks too. I have come to revere the valiant fails and destructive streaks, the constant pecking and the humility in not knowing. I have discovered that a bit of red mixed with blue blends into a divine shade of purple after all, and in the end, all of this is golden. It turns out that my own inner challenges and skewed perceptions of Self known collectively as “i” have served me immeasurably as one of the greatest teachers I have ever known. Is there ever a final peak, a pivotal point in the merging of our two selves? I cannot say for certain.  I do know however that for now, there is plenty of trekking to endure and enjoy with the ever-blemished me, myself, and I–and i.

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New Eyes

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New Eyes

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. [Marcel Proust]

Shoshin is a concept in Zen Buddhism that means, “beginner’s mind”. It refers to experiencing without preconceptions, observing everything with new eyes. 

My father will often tell the story of the time he took my brother Nicholas and I out for a stroll in the wagon one crisp fall afternoon in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. It wasn’t long before Nicholas began shouting and pointing, “Daddy, Daddy, LOOK!” My father with fears of all kinds racing through his mind shouted back in a voice of panic, “WHAT Nicholas, I don’t see anything! What are you pointing at, what’s wrong?!” My brother smiled and responded, “Look, it’s a red tree!” 

When was the last time you noticed a “red tree”? Or experienced where you are fully, with a beginner’s mind, free from preconceptions, judgement, and familiarity? Somehow as we age our vision hardens, and the beauty that is each passing moment becomes a blur. The monotony of life limits our sight, even though the reality of existence teaches us that no two moments ever have, nor ever will ever be exactly alike. We label what we see and compartmentalize these images somewhere in our mental rolodex. When we see a similar picture, we recall this image and fall victim of our own objectification failing to notice the subtleties and uniqueness of that particular moment and experience.

My recent cross-country move has kept this Shoshin philosophy wading in my mind, serving as a  mental reminder to not take the abundance of new sights and sounds for granted. I am enjoying and embracing the challenge of not missing the mysticism of the evening fog rolling in from the Bay, feeling the crisp pacific air against my face–not to be confused with a crisp fall Kentucky afternoon in 1987–and the myriad of nuances that make my move and life in this very moment unique.

As Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Regardless of whether you are experiencing a significant life change of your own or keeping things status quo, in essence every moment is a new chapter. Every day is a unique journey. The ultimate quest is in experiencing all things, every moment, as a beginner.  As you continue to trek down your own life’s path, keep your new eyes open, and stay on the look out for red trees.

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